The importance of learning theory and equitation science to the veterinarian

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The work of veterinarians when handling horses exposes them to high risk of injury. Among equine practitioners, the incidences of work-related injuries and work days lost due to injury are high. Equine veterinary practitioners’ knowledge of learning theory and equitation science is minimal. Increasingly veterinarians are expected to provide a leadership role in animal welfare, including behaviour medicine. However, due to deficiencies in veterinary training, which traditionally focuses on physical aspects of health, veterinarians may be under equipped to deal effectively with all aspects of animal behaviour. Advancing veterinarians’ understanding of the application of learning principles for horses would improve safety, increase ease of handling and restraint during clinical procedures and increase clinical efficacy. As the risk of injury declines, so too would the risk of litigation. Through example, veterinarians are ideally placed to influence and educate equestrian personnel in best practice handling and restraint methods. Training methods that do not align with the horse’s natural learning abilities reduce the likelihood of optimal performance and increase the frequency of problem behaviours as well as jeopardising equine welfare. Detection of inappropriate training practices is an essential part of the veterinarian’s role in identifying and addressing causes of sub-optimal performance in the equine athlete. Poor performance and problem behaviours that result from the use of inappropriate training practices may contribute significantly to the current levels of wastage in the horse industry. Education of veterinarians in equitation science could play a pivotal role in reducing wastage and improving horse welfare globally.